Courts

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Newsom is Running Out of Time to Sign Bills

Posted By on Thu, Oct 7, 2021 at 2:46 PM

Gov. Gavin Newsom signs legislation at CSU Northridge to improve college affordability and increase access to higher education. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE GOVERNOR’S PRESS OFFICE
  • Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Press Office
  • Gov. Gavin Newsom signs legislation at CSU Northridge to improve college affordability and increase access to higher education.
T-minus three days.

That’s how much time Gov. Gavin Newsom has left to decide the fate of the remaining bills on his desk — and as the deadline draws nearer, the buildup for big-ticket and contentious proposals is getting more intense.

The direct impact of Newsom’s decisions was particularly apparent Wednesday, when he signed a stack of higher education bills — including one that makes it easier for community college students to transfer to a CSU or UC campus — while onstage at CSU Northridge, surrounded by lawmakers and pom pom-waving cheerleaders. “Eat your heart out, Texas! Eat your heart out, Florida!” Newsom yelled — referring to California’s $47.1 billion higher education budget — as the audience cheered. “Eat your heart out, Tennessee! Eat your heart out, fill-in-the-damn-blank!”

Conspicuously absent from the package, however, was a bill that would usher in the most consequential reforms to California’s financial aid system in a generation.

Also Wednesday, Newsom launched the Governor’s Council on Holocaust and Genocide Education, which has as one of its stated goals providing “young people with the tools necessary to recognize and respond to on-campus instances of anti-Semitism and bigotry.” The move comes as some Holocaust survivors urge Newsom to veto a bill that would make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement. Citing anti-Semitic content, Jewish groups were some of the most vocal critics of early drafts of California’s ethnic studies model curriculum — which the state Board of Education approved in March after taking into account more than 100,000 public comments.

Here’s a look at other noteworthy bills Newsom signed or vetoed in the past few days.

Signed into law:

Vetoed:

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 4,524,853 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 69,184 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 50,081,818 vaccine doses, and 70.9% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

Plus: CalMatters is tracking the results of the Newsom recall election and the top 21 bills state lawmakers sent to Newsom’s desk.

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Tuesday, October 5, 2021

McKinleyville Man Receives Suspended Sentence in Fatal Stabbing

Posted By on Tue, Oct 5, 2021 at 2:38 PM


A Humboldt County judge handed a McKinleyville resident a suspended sentence of seven years today for 2019 fatal stabbing of a Rohnert Park man outside of his home in an altercation that occurred after he'd called 911 to report that someone had cut his power and was trying to break into his house.

Brian Jon Leiteritz, 42, also received five years probation and one year in jail in connection to the death of Dylan Liakos, whose injuries included a stab wound to the back.

Leiteritz entered an "open" guilty plea to manslaughter in August after Judge John Feeney indicated he intended to sentence him to probation. He had originially been facing a second degree murder change, among others. After his preliminary trial, which the Times-Standard reports included testimony that Liakos was romantically involved with Leiteritz's ex-girlfriend, the charge was reduced to manslaughter with use of a deadly weapon.

Leiteritz could face prison time if he violates conditions of his probation, the DA's office states.

Read the district attorney's office release below:

On October 5, 2021, Humboldt County Judge John Feeney sentenced 42-year-old Brian Jon Leiteritz to 7 years - execution of sentence suspended - plus 5 years of probation and 365 days in jail for voluntary manslaughter with use of a deadly weapon.

The sentence means Leiteritz can be sent to prison for 7 years if he violates the terms of his probation.

The conviction stems from a 2019 incident in which Leiteritz killed Dylan Liakos with a kitchen knife in front of Leiteritz’ McKinleyville home, after Leiteritz had called 911 to report that someone had cut his power and was now at his front door. Injuries to the victim included a stab wound to the back; law enforcement officers found the victim on the sidewalk.

In September of 2020, after a 3-day preliminary hearing that included testimony from civilian witnesses involved in the incident, Judge Marilyn Miles determined that Leiteritz should face trial for manslaughter with use of a deadly weapon. (The original charges included second-degree murder.) Manslaughter carries a sentence of up to 11 years in prison; the use of the knife could add 1 year to the sentence.

On August 5, 2021, Leiteritz pled "open" to manslaughter and admitted the allegation. An open plea means the judge determines the sentence, just as they would after a trial leading to conviction. Leiteritz pled guilty in August after Judge Feeney indicated he intended to sentence Leiteritz to probation.

Deputy District Attorney Steven Steward prosecuted the case with the assistance of District Attorney Investigator Marvin Kirkpatrick and Victim Advocate Marybeth Bian. Attorney Michael Robinson represented Brian Leiteritz.
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Monday, October 4, 2021

Shlomo Rechnitz Nursing Home Suit Over COVID Deaths Reflects ‘Broken State Licensing’

Posted By on Mon, Oct 4, 2021 at 10:44 AM

Johanna Trenerry of Happy Valley holds a photograph of herself with her husband, Art Trenerry, who died last year of COVID-19 while staying at Windsor Redding Care Center. His family members, including Johanna, are named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the facility. - PHOTO BY MATT BATES FOR CALMATTERS
  • Photo by Matt Bates for CalMatters
  • Johanna Trenerry of Happy Valley holds a photograph of herself with her husband, Art Trenerry, who died last year of COVID-19 while staying at Windsor Redding Care Center. His family members, including Johanna, are named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the facility.
The state’s largest nursing home owner, Shlomo Rechnitz, is facing a lawsuit alleging that one of his homes is responsible for the COVID-related deaths of some 24 elderly and dependent residents.

The catch? Five years ago, the state denied Rechnitz and his companies a license to operate the place, the state’s own records show.

The case brought against Rechnitz, his companies and the home itself, Windsor Redding Care Center, is yet another footnote in an ongoing nursing home licensing saga documented in a CalMatters investigation last spring.

That investigation revealed an opaque and confusing state licensing process frequently marred by indecision and delays. CalMatters found that the California Department of Public Health has allowed Rechnitz to operate many skilled nursing facilities for years through a web of companies as their license applications languish in “pending” status — or are outright denied.

One of Rechnitz's companies is Brius Healthcare, which owns Granada Rehabilitation and Wellness, Seaview Rehabilitation and Wellness, Eureka Rehabilitation and Wellness and Fortuna Rehabilitation and Wellness, holding a virtual monopoly on skilled nursing facilities in Humboldt County.

The lawsuit — which includes a total of 46 plaintiffs, including 14 deceased residents and 32 family members — specifically calls out Rechnitz and his management companies as being an “unlicensed owner-operator” of the skilled nursing facility. The plaintiffs also are suing the previous owners, whose names and companies remain on the license.

Family members of residents who died as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak last fall are suing the facility for elder neglect and abuse, alleging that Windsor Redding forced employees to come into work while symptomatic with the virus, triggering the outbreak.

The complaint further alleges that dozens of residents who fell ill were left isolated and neglected due to “extreme understaffing.” One nurse told state inspectors that she alone had to pass out medications to 27 COVID-positive patients, meaning the medications were often late, according to an Oct. 21, 2020, inspection report, also cited in the lawsuit. Another nurse told them that nurses on the COVID unit, or “Red Zone,” were “stressed, overloaded and tapped out” and unable to take breaks, the report said.

The complaint lists 142 violations substantiated by investigators including neglect, abuse, staffing and infection control issues between January 2018 and June 2021. In November 2020, the federal government fined the facility $152,000 as a result of the inspections.

A ‘broken’ licensing system

Democratic Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi of Los Angeles said the lawsuit against the Redding facility, located 160 miles north of Sacramento, “clearly provides Exhibit A of the broken state licensing system for nursing homes.”

“The fact that this facility had its license application denied and yet they continued to operate during this pandemic, which unfortunately led to an alleged 24 deaths from COVID, highlights the urgent need for the state to fix its broken licensing system,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Assembly Health Committee will hold an informational hearing to discuss problems with nursing home oversight and licensing in the state.

“They know this operator is running the facility, and they’re not doing anything about it. In a sense, the state could be co-defendants in this case.”

Tony Chicotel, staff attorney for California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform

Rechnitz, a Los Angeles entrepreneur, was in his mid-30s when he began buying nursing homes 15 years ago. He and his companies, including Brius Healthcare, have acquired at least 81 facilities around California, making him the state’s biggest for-profit nursing home owner.

Rechnitz and his companies operate more than a quarter of those facilities despite the fact that the California Department of Public Health has not approved — or has outright rejected — their licensing applications, according to state records. In the case of five “Windsor” facilities, including Windsor Redding, Rechnitz and his companies continue to run them after the state’s license denial. The previous owners’ companies, affiliated with the Windsor brand, are still listed in state records as the official license-holders.

Mark Johnson, an attorney who represents Rechnitz and Brius, said in an emailed statement that he could not comment on pending litigation except to say that: “The facility vehemently disagrees with the allegations and it intends to defend the action vigorously.”

Johnson has previously declined to answer detailed questions about the licensing issues. But he has expressed frustration in emailed statements to CalMatters about the state’s inconsistent approach to Brius homes — approving some, denying others, and leaving still others stuck in pending status.

The death of Art Trenerry

Art Trenerry arrived at Windsor Redding on Aug. 6, 2020, after suffering a stroke, his family and attorney say. Several of Trenerry’s family members are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Visitors weren’t allowed inside at the time, they told CalMatters. Instead, Johanna, his wife of 60 years, and their children would visit outside the window, said one of their daughters, Nancy Hearden, in an interview. Sometimes the facility would wheel the wrong person out, she said.

Johanna said she would ask nurses to hold the phone to her 82-year-old husband’s ear so she could tell him “Hi Dad, I love you.”

His daughters called twice a day to check on him, growing concerned by their perception that “things aren’t right,” Hearden said. They began looking to move him to a new facility, or to bring him home, she said.

“Just as we were going to get him out of there,” said Hearden, “he got COVID.”

Art Trenerry and his granddaughter, Elizabeth Trenerry, now 4 years old. Photo courtesy of the family

Hearden said she called in a complaint about the care her father received to Shasta County’s public health department on April 20, 2021. “Their response to me was, ‘they’re complying now,’” she said.

Hearden said she had not known who owned the facility when her father arrived there. The state denied Rechnitz licenses to operate Windsor Redding and four other facilities in July 2016, citing the poor track records of many facilities “owned, managed, or operated, either directly or indirectly, by the applicant,” according to 22-page denial letters addressed to Rechnitz.

Two departments within state government record Rechnitz’ relationship to the Redding facility differently. Rechnitz is listed as the owner of Windsor Redding in cost reports filed with the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development in 2020. But his name is not on the California Department of Public Health’s consumer website, Cal Health Find, which identifies the facility’s owner/operator as Lee Samson, Lawrence Feigen and two limited liability companies with the Windsor brand. Windsor still operates nursing homes in California and Arizona, according to its website.

The lawsuit, filed last month in Shasta County Superior Court, also alleges that Rechnitz and his “management operating companies” circumvented the state’s denial by creating a “joint venture” with Samson and a limited liability company affiliated with S&F Management.

S&F is a West Hollywood-based company that provides “professional consulting services to Windsor facilities,” Todd Andrews, senior vice president of S&F Management Co., told CalMatters in March. When asked about the lawsuit last week, Andrews said that his company and its president and CEO, Lee Samson — also named as defendants in the complaint — have had no day-to-day involvement with the facility. He said the state “has not transferred the license in over seven years,” despite repeated appeals, so Windsor remains the licensee.

A spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health declined to comment on the case because it is pending litigation.

Nursing home oversight in legislative crosshairs

Assemblymember Muratsuchi authored a bill earlier this year that would forbid the use of management agreements to “circumvent state licensure requirements” and would require owners and operators to get approval from the California Department of Public Health before acquiring, operating or managing a nursing home.

The bill stalled in the Assembly Health Committee in the spring. But the committee’s chair, Assemblymember Jim Wood, a Santa Rosa Democrat, said he was so committed to fixing these issues that he planned to take the unusual step of putting his name on it as a joint author next year. Wood will chair Tuesday’s legislative hearing on nursing home licensing, inspections and quality of care – with representatives of the Department of Public Health expected to appear.

Windsor Redding Care Center is facing a lawsuit after about 24 nursing home residents died of COVID-19 last fall and winter. Photo by Matt Bates for CalMatters

Long before COVID-19, Windsor Redding had a history of care problems. Given that, the complaint says, “it was foreseeable that Defendants would continue to neglect and harm more residents during the pandemic.”

In August 2020, state inspectors cited the facility for admitting patients who were negative for COVID-19 into rooms with residents who were positive for the virus, or had been exposed.

COVID outbreak sweeps through home

By the next month, the facility had an outbreak — 60 of the 83 residents contracted the virus, and “approximately 24” passed away from complications related to COVID-19, the complaint states. (The state identified 23 COVID-related deaths at the home last fall and winter.)

In September 2020, the California Department of Public Health conducted an inspection of the facility and declared an “immediate jeopardy,” the level of deficiency reserved for the most egregious incidents in nursing homes that could cause serious injury or death.

Among the inspection’s findings: the facility had punitive sick leave policies. Two staff members reported being told to come into work despite having symptoms of COVID-19, including “body aches, chills, sweats and respiratory symptoms” for one and “loss of taste, lethargy, and cough” for the other, according to a Sept. 25, 2020, inspection report. Both eventually tested positive.

In that same report, the investigators also reported that staff were reusing personal protective equipment. One nurse was found wearing her N-95 mask around her chin. When asked if staff were to wear their masks over their noses and mouths while at the nurse’s desk, the inspection report said, she responded: “I don’t know.”

Shlomo Rechnitz - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SACARAMENTO BEE / PAUL KITAGAKI JR.
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SACARAMENTO BEE / PAUL KITAGAKI JR.
  • Shlomo Rechnitz

The complaint alleges, further, that the defendants have a “general business practice” of understaffing the facility.

“It makes dying alone even lonelier,” said Wendy York, a Sacramento attorney specializing in nursing home abuse whose firm is among three representing the families. “My heart gets heavy when I think of them in this unit, in this environment.”

Tony Chicotel, staff attorney for California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, said he holds the state partly to account for the outbreak.

“They know this operator is running the facility, and they’re not doing anything about it,” he said. “In a sense, the state could be co-defendants in this case.”

Trenerry family say its goodbyes

The last time Johanna Trenerry was able to see her husband, Art, was the night of Sept. 25, 2020, after he tested positive for COVID. She and some of her children were allotted 15 minutes each to see him. During those minutes, Trenerry sat next to her husband, holding his hand. Right before she left, she raised her face shield and kissed him. He died a week and a half later.

Johanna Trenerry is Catholic, and believes that Art is with God now, and that they’re both keeping an eye on her. Ever since the couple met as 16-year-olds on a blind date, Art had taken care of her, always supporting her “crazy ideas.” She told him she wanted a big family, a farm and a two-story house. “Ok, hon, whatever you want, you can have,” he said.

He worked as a stationary engineer, doing maintenance at the local hospital in Redding, and served as a volunteer firefighter and on the local water board. They raised eight children together on a 14-acre farm in Happy Valley, a small community outside town. His family describes him as quiet, but funny, always ready to help a neighbor and so devoted to his grandchildren that he built them a miniature railroad track on the property.

When a friend down the street said that her own husband was unwell, Johanna didn’t mince words.

“Don’t send him to a rest home,” she told her friend. “He’ll die there.”

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Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Judge Requires COVID Vaccines for California Prison Workers

Posted By on Wed, Sep 29, 2021 at 6:31 AM

One of Pelican Bay's 11 perimeter guard towers. - FILE
  • File
  • One of Pelican Bay's 11 perimeter guard towers.
California prison workers will join the list of state employees who must be vaccinated against COVID, a federal judge ruled Monday — a loss for the state prison guards’ union and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

For months, the politically powerful union and the Newsom administration have resisted a COVID vaccine mandate for prison workers, despite the spread of the deadly virus behind prison walls. Those outbreaks have increased with the rise of the more contagious delta variant: From August to mid-September, the ruling noted, a “staggering” 48 outbreaks have been traced back to prison staff.

Since the pandemic began, more than 50,000 California state prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 and 240 have died. Yet to date only about 42 percent of guards and 57 percent of all prison staffers are fully vaccinated.

California currently requires unvaccinated prison workers to submit to frequent COVID tests.

At Pelican Bay State Prison in Del Norte County, 34 percent of staff were fully vaccinated and just less than 3 percent partially vaccinated as of Sept. 28, the second lowest rate in the state prison system, according to CDCR. On the flip side, 77 percent of those incarcerated at California’s only supermax prison are fully vaccinated while a similar 2.7 percent are partially vaccinated.

State officials have tried cash incentives, behavioral science strategies, even one-on-one counseling to entice more of them to get the shots. But most resisters didn’t budge. Although more than 5,000 staff attended the one-on-one counseling sessions, a mere 262 agreed to be vaccinated. Roughly 4,300 others signed a statement of refusal.

U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar in Oakland concluded there was no evidence that further efforts to boost voluntary vaccination would be any more successful. A mandate, he added, ”would lower the risk of preventable death and serious medical consequences among incarcerated persons. And no one has identified any remedy that will produce anything close to the same benefit.”

Prison employees can avoid the COVID vaccine mandate if they have a medical or religious exemption.

Flourish logoA Flourish chart

“We’ve undertaken an aggressive, voluntary vaccination program and we still believe the voluntary approach is the best way forward,” Glen Stailey, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, said in a text message. “We are looking into our legal options to address this order.”

The judge said the state disregarded a substantial risk of serious harm to prisoners, violating their Eighth Amendment rights. The lawsuit on behalf of prisoners was brought by the Prison Law Office.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement that it was evaluating the order to “determine next steps.”

“We respectfully disagree with the finding of deliberate indifference, as the department has long embraced vaccinations against COVID-19, and we continue to encourage our staff, incarcerated population, volunteers, and visitors to get vaccinated,” wrote the department spokesperson.

State data shows that more than 20,000 prison workers have contracted COVID and 39 have died from the virus since the pandemic’s onset. Staff outbreaks and exposure to COVID-19 led to about 5,500 prison staff absences, delayed inmate care and created a backlog of 13,000 health care appointments, according to the ruling.

COVID testing alone isn’t enough

A federally appointed receiver has overseen the medical care of California prisoners for years, the result of a class action lawsuit over inmate treatment. A month ago, receiver J. Clark Kelso filed a report recommending the state require COVID vaccines for prison staff, citing the spread of the delta variant.

“Frequent testing is insufficient to prevent institutional staff who are unaware that they have COVID‐19 from spreading the virus,” the receiver wrote.

In a May 2021 response to a question about COVID vaccine requirements, Gov. Newsom indicated that he didn’t plan on getting ahead of the California prison guards union, which donated $1.5 million to help him fend off a recall election.

“We have no further announcement to make as it relates to whether or not we’re going to mandate those vaccines,” said Newsom, adding that he was relying on the guards’ union to convince more of its own to get the shots.

In a previous story, CalMatters spoke to several correctional officers opposed to getting vaccinated.

“No. Never will,” answered a prison guard at California Rehabilitation Center in Norco.

“A lot of us have already had COVID and recovered, so we don’t see the point in getting the vaccine,” said another Norco guard, who tested positive for COVID in December of 2020.

The judge who issued Monday’s ruling didn’t set a deadline for the state to comply with the ruling. Instead, the receiver and state attorneys will create a plan that sets the deadline

California would not be the first state to institute a COVID vaccine mandate for prison guards. Nevada did so earlier this month.

This article was originally published by CalMatters. The North Coast Journal contributed to this report.
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Saturday, September 18, 2021

Robert Durst Convicted of Murder Committed While Living in Humboldt

Posted By on Sat, Sep 18, 2021 at 3:23 PM

The New York Times reports that Robert Durst, "the enigmatic real estate scion who evaded criminal suspicion for half his life only to become a national sensation after damaging admissions were aired in a 2015 documentary on HBO, was convicted on Friday in the execution-style murder of a close confidante more than 20 years ago." For five years starting in 1995, Durst was also a resident of Trinidad.
Robert Durst in the documentary "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst." - COURTESY OF HBO
  • Courtesy of HBO
  • Robert Durst in the documentary "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst."

This conviction is for the 2000 murder of  Susan Berman, though prosecutors allege her death is connected to the disappearance and death of Durst's wife and the death of another person, Morris Black. Read the Journal's 2015 story on Durst and his time in Humboldt here, including how Durst drove from Humboldt County to Los Angeles to shoot Berman in her Los Angeles home.
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Friday, August 20, 2021

Humboldt Judge Rescinds Release of Convicted Sex Offender

Posted By on Fri, Aug 20, 2021 at 3:18 PM

A Humboldt County Superior Court judge issued a ruling last week striking his December of 2016 order for the conditional release of a local man who's been designated as a Sexually Violent Predator.

According to a Humboldt District Attorney's Office news release, Judge John Feeney's Aug. 13 ruling was based not only on the inability to find a placement for Joshua Cooley but "also on his recent behavior at the state hospital, which included refusal to participate in treatment programs."

Cooley is currently housed at Coalinga State Hospital,  a locked psychiatric facility for sexual offenders, where he will remain "unless a judge concludes that he could be safely returned to public life," the release states.

Feeney previously blocked Cooley’s release to Garberville and Eureka in 2019 as well as a rural Freshwater neighborhood in 2018, finding those areas were not a suitable placement.

There was also opposition from the DA's Office, local law enforcement and community members in each of those cases.

“Achieving the right outcome in this case depended on citizens making the effort to get involved, along with exceptional effort by Assistant District Attorney Stacey Eads to clearly and comprehensively present the People’s position in many written communications," District Attorney Maggie Fleming said in the release.  "I appreciate the efforts of everyone who provided Judge Feeney with the information he needed to fairly evaluate Cooley’s current condition and potential for release, and to make the appropriate decision.”

Cooley was committed to the hospital on his Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) designation in 2010 after serving prison time for sexually assaulting a minor. After an appeal, his petition for release was granted in December of 2016, with the search for a suitable placement taking place in the ensuing years.

According to the DA's Office, the state has made more than seven specific proposals for Cooley's placement and considered more than 7,000 potential sites.

Read more about the SVP designation process in the Journal’s Aug. 20, 2015, story “Free and Afraid.”


Read the DA's Office release below:
On August 13th, Judge John Feeney issued a ruling striking his December 2016 order for conditional release of Joshua Cooley from the State Hospital in Coalinga, a locked psychiatric facility for sexual offenders. Cooley has been housed at Coalinga since 2010, after a Humboldt County jury found him to be a “Sexually Violent Predator”.

Feeney’s December-2016 order for Cooley’s release and the proposal of several specific placement sites that followed – including several in Humboldt County – received substantial opposition. District Attorney (DA) Maggie Fleming opposed the original order because the majority of psychological experts who had evaluated Cooley did not conclude that he could be safely returned to public life. As the State proposed specific placement sites, the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office, along with other District Attorneys, individual citizens, community service providers, and law enforcement, presented reasons why Cooley’s release at those locations would not be reasonable.

In the effort to place Cooley, the State made over 7 specific proposals for placement and considered more than 7,000 potential sites. Judge Feeney’s recent ruling relied not only on the inability to place Cooley, but also on his recent behavior at the State Hospital, which included refusal to participate in treatment programs. The ruling means that Cooley will remain confined at Coalinga unless a judge concludes that he could be safely returned to public life.

Cooley’s potential for release will continue to receive annual evaluation.

DA Fleming stated: “Achieving the right outcome in this case depended on citizens making the effort to get involved, along with exceptional effort by Assistant District Attorney Stacey Eads to clearly and comprehensively present the People’s position in many written communications. I appreciate the efforts of everyone who provided Judge Feeney with the information he needed to fairly evaluate Cooley’s current condition and potential for release, and to make the appropriate decision.”
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Redwood Burl Poacher Sentenced to Community Service, Probation, Banned from Park

Posted By on Fri, Aug 20, 2021 at 1:02 PM

A ranger measuring the damage to the redwood trunk in the case. - NPS
  • NPS
  • A ranger measuring the damage to the redwood trunk in the case.
An Orick man is now banned from stepping foot into Redwood National and State Parks as part of his sentencing today after pleading guilty last month to poaching burl from old growth redwoods at the protected site. He also received two years probation, a $1,200 fine and 400 hours of community service.

Derek Alwin Hughes' case dates back to 2018, when the parks' rangers began an investigation into the pillaging of an old growth tree near Newton B. Drury Parkway that had massive chunks cut out from the base. Using photo monitoring and tire track evidence, they were able to obtain a search warrant for Hughes' home.

Burl found at the now 38 year old's property was transported back to the poaching site, where rangers were able to make a match. The knobbed growths on redwoods, which encase intricately patterned wood that can fetch hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on the unregulated burl market — are in many ways like a human fingerprint, with the whorls of each one unique to a specific tree.

Incidents, like the one involving Hughes, are unfortunately not uncommon in Redwood National and State Parks, which is home to some of the world's last old growth stands. If the damage is too severe, the tree will die. In one of the worst documented cases, a 300-year-old redwood was cut down just so a poacher could get at a massive burl located 50 feet up its side. (Read more in the Journal's May of 2018 story, "Crimes Against Nature.")
The aftermath of burl poaching. - REDWOOD NATIONAL AND STATE PARKS
  • Redwood National and State Parks
  • The aftermath of burl poaching.
And redwoods are not the only local natural resource under siege, succulents and red abalone, a species on the brink with the collapse of much of the state's bull kelp forests amid a "perfect storm" of ecological events tied to climate change, are among other local plants and wildlife also sought by poachers.

Humboldt County Deputy District Attorney Steven Steward, who prosecuted Hughes' case, had asked the court to impose the maximum fine — a three year sentence and $10,000 fine — "given the extent of damage to irreplaceable shared natural resources and the importance of deterring such behavior," a release from the DA's Office states.

Read the DA's Office release below:
Following 38-year-old Derek Alwin Hughes’ guilty plea to one count of felony vandalism on July 23rd, Judge Christopher Wilson today sentenced Hughes to two years on probation and ordered him to complete 400 hours of community service and to stay out of Redwood National and State Parks.

The conviction stems from a 2018 investigation by Redwood National and State Parks Law Enforcement Rangers of the removal of old-growth redwood burl from trees in the vicinity of Newton B. Drury Parkway. Investigators used photo monitoring and tire-track evidence to obtain a search warrant for Hughes’ residence, where they found pieces of burl that matched the damaged trees. Hughes faced a maximum 3-year jail sentence and $10,000 fine.

In prosecuting the case, Humboldt County Deputy District Attorney Steven Steward argued that the court should impose the maximum fine given the extent of damage to irreplaceable shared natural resources and the importance of deterring such behavior. Deputy Public Defender Wade Orbelian represented Hughes.
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Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Brownfield Appointed Public Defender

Posted By on Tue, Aug 17, 2021 at 2:05 PM


The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors today appointed Luke Brownfield to serve as the county's public defender, overseeing the office that represents individuals accused of criminal offenses who cannot afford an attorney.

“With his experience and leadership, we are fortunate to have Luke as the new public defender for our community,” said 3rd District Supervisor and Vice Chair Mike Wilson in a news release. “We would also like to thank former Public Defender Marek Reavis, for his years of service to the community.”

Brownfield, who was raised in Humboldt County and previously led the Child Abuse Services Team in the District Attorney's Office before moving over to the Public Defender's Office, replaces Marek Reavis, who retired July 2.

Brownfield, who expressed gratitude for his appointment and the opportunity to serve the community he grew up in, said he plans on moving his office beyond just defense work by coordinating with social workers in addressing underlying circumstances facing many of the office's clients, including poverty, addiction and homelessness, that lead them to the criminal justice system.

“Rather than focusing solely on criminal representation and courtroom advocacy, I plan to address the broader social problems that underpin criminal behavior by addressing our clients’ underlying needs in addition to their criminal defense,” Brownfield said in the release. “The types of problems that many public defense clients face – such as drug addiction, poverty, and homelessness – cannot be adequately addressed by a lawyer alone. Thus, engaging social workers within the public defense setting will provide great benefits to our clients and the County of Humboldt."

Read the county of Humboldt release below:
The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors today appointed Luke Brownfield as the new Public Defender. He replaces Marek Reavis, who retired on July 2. Brownfield was appointed as the Acting Public Defender effective July 4.

“With his experience and leadership, we are fortunate to have Luke as the new public defender for our community,” said 3rd District Supervisor and Vice Chair Mike Wilson. “We would also like to thank former Public Defender Marek Reavis, for his years of service to the community.”

Brownfield, a Humboldt County native, started his career as a defense attorney in Placer County where he served for 3 years. He then moved back to the North Coast, where he led the Child Abuse Services Team (CAST) for 5 years with the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office. Brownfield then left for the Public Defender’s Office where he has been for 6 years and served as the Assistant Public Defender for the last 4 years.

“I am very grateful to the Board of Supervisors and the people of Humboldt County for this fantastic opportunity to serve our community,” said Brownfield. “The Public Defender’s Office holds a special place in my heart. Having worked in the office for the last 6 years, I am excited to lead a team of such exceptional attorneys and amazing staff. Having been born and raised in Humboldt, I have a great respect for the work that is done here by so many.”

Brownfield ensures the Public Defender’s office will continue to defend and protect the rights, liberties, and dignity of those accused of crimes who cannot afford to retain counsel. However, the office now has a unique opportunity to help the community by providing more than just criminal defense.

“Rather than focusing solely on criminal representation and courtroom advocacy, I plan to address the broader social problems that underpin criminal behavior by addressing our clients’ underlying needs in addition to their criminal defense,” said Brownfield. “The types of problems that many public defense clients face – such as drug addiction, poverty, and homelessness – cannot be adequately addressed by a lawyer alone. Thus, engaging social workers within the public defense setting will provide great benefits to our clients and the County of Humboldt."
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Monday, July 19, 2021

Yurok Tribal Council Unanimously Rejects Proposed Purdue Pharma Opioid Settlement

Posted By on Mon, Jul 19, 2021 at 9:00 PM

The Yurok Tribal Council voted unanimously last week to oppose the proposed bankruptcy settlement agreement and restructuring plan for OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, saying it amounts to a “sweetheart settlement” for the billionaire Sackler family, which owns the pharmaceutical giant.

“There is no justice in this settlement,” Tribal Chair Joseph James said in a press release. “The Yurok Tribe is incredibly disappointed with the agreement because it does not hold Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family accountable for the damage they have caused in our community and across the continent. Everything about the ability of this family to escape consequences and responsibility for premeditated actions offends the world view of the Yurok people.”

The tribe joined approximately 3,000 other tribes, cities, counties and states in suing the company, alleging it downplayed the highly addictive nature of the opioid painkiller while continuing to market it aggressively, creating an addiction crisis linked to nearly 500,000 deaths across the country over the last 20 years, according to the Associated Press.


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Saturday, July 10, 2021

Lawsuit Alleges Eureka Police Used Excessive Force During George Floyd Protest

Posted By on Sat, Jul 10, 2021 at 7:44 AM

Molly Conso, pictured lighting a candle at a vigil for David Josiah Lawson, is suing the city of Eureka and county of Humboldt, alleging officers used excessive force during a protest of the 2020 murder of George Floyd. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • Molly Conso, pictured lighting a candle at a vigil for David Josiah Lawson, is suing the city of Eureka and county of Humboldt, alleging officers used excessive force during a protest of the 2020 murder of George Floyd.

A local woman has filed a federal lawsuit against the county of Humboldt and the city of Eureka, alleging police officers violated her constitutional rights when they shot her with less-than-lethal projectiles as she peacefully marched while protesting the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

In the suit filed last month seeking unspecified damages for physical pain and emotional distress, Molly Crane Conso alleges that she was peacefully marching, locked arm-in-arm with other protesters, on May 31, 2020, near the Dutch Bros. parking lot on N Street, when — “suddenly and without warning” — officers shot pepper balls into the crowd and they struck her in the “head, buttocks and breasts.”

“At no time did plaintiff violate any laws or present any harm or threat of harm to the officers or others at the scene,” the lawsuit states. “Upon information and belief, (the officers) gave plaintiff no verbal warning or command before shooting her with projectiles. Upon information and belief, at no time was an order to disburse issued to the peaceful protestors by defendants prior to unlawfully and unjustifiably shooting plaintiff with the projectile.”

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